I’ll never forget that day.
Out looking for wildlife in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley, my colleagues and I came across a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs squaring off with a family of wolves over a bison carcass.
We watched for hours. The wolves would feed, then the bears came in. If the wolves were aggressive, the bears retreated. Then the wolves would withdraw, leaving the bears to feast.
Looking around, there were easily more than 100 people watching. Most appeared to be international visitors who’d come to see some of the world’s most famous wildlife – Yellowstone’s grizzlies.
But the bears we saw that day are now in grave danger. They may soon be in the crosshairs of trophy hunters the second they cross park boundaries.
The Trump administration stripped Yellowstone’s grizzlies of Endangered Species Act protections last year, paving the way for state-sponsored trophy hunting.
Now, Wyoming plans to declare open season on these beloved bears for the first time in 40 years.
Under a proposal from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, trophy hunters could kill 24 grizzlies, including 14 females. In some areas of Wyoming, baiting would even be allowed.
This reckless proposal – which state officials could approve on May 23 – ignores the population declines and food challenges facing Yellowstone’s bears and the important role they play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
Because of the grizzly’s slow reproductive rate, females take 10 years to replace themselves in the population. Killing just one female could impact the local grizzly population for the next decade; killing 14 could be devastating.
Grizzlies in the lower 48 states occupy less than 4 percent of their historic range. Yellowstone’s bears remain isolated from other grizzlies in Glacier National Park and northern Idaho. A trophy hunt could further decrease the likelihood of these bears connecting with other populations, threatening their genetic health.
Since 2015, the grizzly population has declined and mortality rates have been on the rise. Traditional foods like whitebark pine cones and Yellowstone cutthroat trout have diminished as a result of climate change, disease and invasive species, pushing bears to a more meat-based diet. This could lead to increased conflicts with livestock or hunters – and more dead bears.
Trophy hunting would be incredibly destructive for a bear population already struggling to deal with a changing environment.
Thankfully, not all states are rushing ahead with hunting.
In February, Montana announced it would not allow grizzly hunting this year. Wyoming should do the same and prove it can responsibly manage these bears.
Yellowstone’s amazing grizzlies are loved around the world. They are crucial to the web of life and to Wyoming’s economy by helping to drive tourism. These majestic animals deserve a chance to survive – not to be recklessly hunted as trophies.
(Andrea Santarsiere defends endangered wildlife as a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. She lives in Victor, Idaho.)